Sharper Landscape Photographs: A Guide to Maximising Image Sharpness
Ensuring that your images are acceptably sharp is the most basic and fundamental skill for any landscape photographer.
Fail to do this and there will be little that you can do to rescue your images.
Following these simple steps will allow you to create perfectly sharp images every time.
1. Eliminate Camera Shake
In my experience camera shake is the number one cause of soft images.
It usually occurs when you fail to hold the camera steady when taking a photo. This in turn is often the result of using too slow a shutter speed.
The Reciprocal Rule
The reciprocal rule is a guide designed to help you to determine the slowest shutter speed that you can use that will produce sharp images.
It states that “the shutter speed needs to be at least the inverse of the focal length”.
That actually sounds more complicated than it really is. Here are a couple of examples:
- When using a 50mm lens the shutter speed needs to be at least 1/50th of a second.
- A 200mm lens requires a shutter speed of at least 1/200th of a second
This means that when shooting with my standard lens (a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4 L IS USM) at 24mm I need to use a shutter speed of at least 1/25th of a second.
Some lenses (and now some cameras too) have built in stabilisation which allow you to shoot a slower shutter speeds.
The stabilisation in my standard lens allows me to use a shutter speed that is 4 stops slower than that dictated by the reciprocal rule.
In theory this means that when shooting at 24mm I could use a shutter speed of 0.6 seconds and still get sharp images (although I have never actually tested this).
Use a Tripod
We landscape photographers often shoot in low light conditions. I am regularly forced to use shutter speeds in excess of 1 second to correctly expose an image.
In these circumstances the most effective way of eliminating camera shake is to mount your camera on a tripod.
2. Focus Correctly
After camera shake the next most common problem that causes soft images is failing to focus correctly.
The autofocus systems on modern cameras are great but they are not infallible. My camera often has problems focusing, particularly when a scene lacks contrast.
I much prefer to focus manually.
I have found that focusing manually is the best way to get the point of focus to be exactly where I want it. And in the digital age it could not be easier!
In live view I magnify the area where I want to focus on using 10x magnification. That way when I adjust the focus manually I can easily see when it is pin sharp.
Some cameras have a feature called focus peaking which is designed to highlight the areas that are in focus.
The only thing to worry about is where to focus.
If I don’t have any foreground I focus on the subject itself. Otherwise I use the hyperfocal distance as a guide.
Most of the time when taking landscape photographs I aim to maximise the depth of field. This gives me the best chance of getting the key elements in both the foreground and background acceptably sharp.
The hyperfocal distance describes how far away from the camera you need to focus in order to achieve the maximum depth of field.
In order to calculate the hyperfocal distance you need to know three things: the size of your camera’s sensor, the focal length of your lens and the aperture that you are using.
Apps like Photo Pills have a depth of field calculator that allow you to easily work out the hyperfocal distance.
3. Select the Correct Aperture
Ensuring that you select the most appropriate aperture is also important if you want produce sharp images on a consistent basis.
We typically use aperture to control depth of field.
Depth of Field
The relationship between aperture and depth of field is simple. The smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field.
As a landscape photographer I find that I use small apertures such as f/11 and f/16 far more often than I use larger apertures such as f/4.
Lens Sweet Spot
All lenses have a sweet spot, an aperture that produces the sharpest images. The sweet spot of most lenses will be somewhere around f/5.6 and f/8.
Unless I am working with close foreground I will always try to shoot at f/8.
If smaller apertures provide greater depth of field why not just shoot at f/22?
If only life was that simple.
When shooting at small apertures we encounter a problem called diffraction. This is the term used to describe how light is scattered when it is passed through a small opening.
When light is scattered in this way it has a negative impact on the sharpness of the image. The smaller the hole, the greater the effect.
CORRECTION: Diffraction describes how light waves are bent as they pass around the edge of a an object, they are not scattered. When passing through a smaller aperture a greater proportion of the light is impacted. This explains why the effect is more pronounced at f/22 than at f/8. (Thanks to Clive Talbutt for the correction).
f/11 is considered to be a good compromise providing both decent depth of field and an acceptable level of diffraction.
4. Eliminate Vibration
Setting the camera on a tripod goes a long way to helping us to create sharp photographs. But we still need to do as much as we can to ensure that small vibrations do not impact image sharpness.
Use a Remote Shutter Release
The first step to eliminate vibration is to ensure that we avoid touching that camera when taking a shot. Even the act of pressing the shutter button can cause the camera to move slightly during the exposure.
Whenever possible I use a remote shutter release to trigger the shutter on my camera.
If however I have left my remote in the pocket of my other trousers (which happens more often than I care to admit) I use the 2 second timer. This is generally enough time to allow the vibrations to die down after I have pressed the shutter button.
Use Mirror Lockup
If like me you use a DSLR then you may also have to account for the vibrations caused when the mirror is flipped up just before the shot is taken.
Most DSLRs have a mirror lockup facility. This is most effective when using the 2 second timer. In this case the mirror to be flipped out of the way immediately as the shutter button is pressed as opposed to just before the shot is taken.
You do not need to worry about mirror lockup if you shoot using live view or use a mirrorless camera.
Even the act of moving around can cause the tripod (and there for the camera) to vibrate.
Unless I am stood on solid rock I try to stand still whenever I am taking a shot.
5. Other Considerations
Use High Quality Filters
Cheap, low quality filters can have a big impact on image quality. If you are going to use on a regular basis (and I use them for almost every shot) consider investing in a good set.
I use Lee Filters and after my camera body they collectively represent my biggest investment. More than any of my lenses or my tripod.
Better still, for ultimate sharpness avoid using filters altogether.
Clean Your Lens
In order to maintain maximum sharpness you need to make sure that your lenses are spotlessly clean. Any smudges or smears on the glass of your lens has the potential to soften your image.
Remember to clean both the front and rear elements of your lenses.
Invest in High Quality Lenses
Ultimately, if you are doing all of the above and still not getting a level of sharpness that you are happy with you may have to invest in better lenses.
A lot of cheaper lenses have sharpness issues particularly around the edges of the frame and in the corners.
I use Canon L series lenses, created for serious enthusiasts and professional photographers. They provide me with the level of sharpness needed to produce high quality fine are prints.
As you can see there is a lot to consider if you want to make sure that your images are as sharp as possible.
To help you remember I have compiled a check list covering the most important steps:
- Mount your camera on a tripod
- Focus manually
- Select the correct aperture (if in doubt use f/11)
- Use a remote shutter release (or the 2 second timer)
- Use mirror lockup (or live view)
- Stand still
- Keep your lens clean
You can download this check list from my downloads page.
If you would like to learn more about these 7 steps check out the video below.
Since the video went live some of you have been making your own suggestions about how to maximise image sharpness. Here are some of my favourites.
“Remember to turn off stabilisation on the lens and camera.” – Grigory Beltsev
“One other tip when using a tripod on spongy ground is to use metal spikes on the feet of the tripod and press down on the tripod to make sure it is solid. Just remember not to stab yourself when folding up your tripod!” – Keith Pinn
“One other thing worth mentioning is focus peaking where the area of the image in focus is shown in a different colour. Very handy for people like me that wear glasses only when reading something close up 🙂 ” – Huw Alban
“If you have a neck strap on your camera, take it off or secure it to your tripod. You don’t want it flapping about in the wind slapping your tripod.” -Helge Erik Storheim
“I also use the 2 second timer when shooting hand held. That gives me time breathe out and relax after I press the shutter button.” – Gordon Melrose